Sugarloaf chicory is a leafy green vegetable highly appreciated for its nutritional properties. It’s easy to cultivate in your garden because of its hardy and robust nature. It provides a satisfying yield and stays fresh for an extended period after harvesting. Additionally, it’s a visually appealing vegetable, forming beautiful elongated and compact heads. Its name is derived from its resemblance to the classic sugarloaf sweet, typically cone-shaped. The plant has a sweet and crisp flavor, which will pleasantly surprise you when used in various recipes.
Now, let’s see how to cultivate it.
Identifying Sugarloaf Chicory
In many think that sugarloaf chicory is a type of lettuce. However, it’s not lettuce but rather a variety of chicory belonging to the Cichorium genus, in the Asteraceae or Compositae family. Within this genus, it’s classified as a type of radicchio (Cichorium intybus). So, the botanical identification of sugarloaf chicory is: Cichorium intybus var. foliosum.
Characteristics of Sugarloaf Chicory
Sugarloaf chicory forms a rosette of elongated, overlapping leaves with a tender white heart. It has a long taproot that anchors it to the ground. At maturity, it develops a cylindrical and elongated head, reaching heights of up to 40 cm. It achieves an excellent volume with an average weight ranging between 500 and 800 g. The base of the head is very compact, resembling a single piece that opens up at the top into a beautiful bouquet of leaves. These leaves are quite broad, with smooth and wavy edges. They are light green at the top, with prominent longitudinal veins. The base features white ribs similar to Swiss chard.
Varieties to Cultivate
There are several varieties of sugarloaf chicory suitable for home gardens, and you can find plants and seeds available for purchase. The main differences among varieties lie in their growing cycles, which can be early, mid-season, or late. Here are some of the most famous ones:
- Antea, late cycle (harvested at 120 days from transplanting)
- Pandora, mid-season cycle (90-100 days)
- Uranus and vesperus, early cycle (80 days).
Cultivating Sugarloaf Chicory
Sugarloaf chicory is a hardy plant that withstands low temperatures. For this reason, it’s typically cultivated in the autumn season, with transplanting starting in August. Some gardeners grow it in the spring, with transplants in late winter, around February. It’s not advisable to cultivate it in the summer when temperatures are high, as it tends to become too tough.
How to Sow
To grow sugarloaf chicory, you can start from seeds using the seedbed technique. Keep in mind that from the time of sowing, it takes about 30 days to form seedlings ready for transplanting. For seedbed preparation, you’ll need good-quality fine-textured soil suitable for sowing. Once prepared, the seedbed should be placed in a location with moderate sunlight. Additionally, provide regular irrigation. An alternative is to purchase seedlings from nurseries, and some have specialized in this particular plant in recent years.
Like all plants with taproots, sugarloaf chicory prefers loose and deep soil that has been well-worked. Clayey soils can be challenging for the plant, as the taproot may not anchor well and penetrate deeply.
A good supply of organic matter is also essential. If the soil is fallow, you can amend it with well-rotted manure, worm castings, or homemade compost. If sugarloaf chicory follows a long-cycle crop in crop rotation (e.g., tomatoes, zucchinis, etc.) that received adequate fertilization, additional fertilization may not be necessary.
Sugarloaf chicory can thrive in tight spaces in your garden, similar to puntarelle. We recommend planting it at ground level, with a spacing of 20 cm within rows and 25-30 cm between rows.
Sugarloaf chicory requires regular irrigation, especially in the days following transplanting. The soil should always be kept consistently moist but not waterlogged. Any water stagnation can lead to dangerous surface rot and damage the outer leaves. Using a drip irrigation system is advisable, with irrigation suspended during rainfall.
For robust growth, it’s essential to keep sugarloaf chicory plants free from weeds, especially during the initial growth stages. Periodic weeding, perhaps using a practical tool like a weeding hoe, is recommended.
Sugarloaf chicory leaves are highly attractive to insect pests. The primary threat comes from slugs, which can be deterred with cost-effective beer traps. In autumn, also watch out for the cavolaia, which can be deterred by spraying a macerate of tomato leaves and female tomato blossoms. In spring plantings of this chicory, there’s a possibility of the presence of black aphids or waxy cabbage aphids, which can be eliminated at the first signs using a soft potassium soap.
Harvesting and Storing Sugarloaf Chicory
Sugarloaf chicory is ready for harvest when the heads are well-formed and compact. In the autumn, it’s best not to delay harvesting too long, as severe frosts can spoil it. To harvest sugarloaf chicory and store it, use a spade to carefully loosen it from the soil. The plant is removed with its entire root system intact. Then, give it a thorough cleaning, immediately removing any damaged outer leaves and soil residues.
The heads can be stored in clean wooden or plastic crates on a single layer. If you have access to a cool storage area, it can keep well for up to a month. The outer leaves may dry during storage, but removing them will reveal a healthy interior. In the spring, it’s best to store it in the refrigerator.
Nutritional Properties and Culinary Use
Sugarloaf chicory has a crisp texture and a pleasant flavor, unlike other chicories, which are typically bitter. It’s a fiber-rich vegetable with essential minerals like calcium and iron, making it not only delicious but also detoxifying and purifying. The leaves of sugarloaf chicory can be enjoyed raw when finely chopped in mixed salads or simply sautéed with extra virgin olive oil and a squeeze of lemon.